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Him We Proclaim: Strategies for Apostolic Homiletics (Part 4)

November 30, 2011

Dennis E. Johnson

3. Getting the Lay of the Land: The “Covenant Terrain” of the Scriptures

Picture yourself lost in a forest on a cloudy night—no road signs or trail markers, no landmarks to be seen. What seemed, when you set out on it, to be a well-worn path disappeared into a thicket, or perhaps forked in two different directions. But you are an experienced hiker, and you have come upon a gently flowing creek. Knowing that every stream in those rolling hills eventually wends its way down to the river, and beside that river is a town that offers shelter from a coming storm, which direction will you head? Upstream, against the current of the creek? Of course not. Across the creek at a 90-degree angle from its flow? No. You will head downstream, following the flow the water. Although you cannot foresee the creek’s every twist and turn, you know that gravity is pulling its waters down to the river, and thus to the town. It shows the lay of the land.

This scenario illustrates the importance of paying attention to how a specific passage fits into the big, overarching theme of the Bible. In all the Bible’s diversity and details, at its heart Holy Scripture is about the relationship of God the Creator to his human creatures. It traces the unfolding history of that relationship from (1) its pristine joy at creation, through (2) its disruption by our fall into sin, to (3) its restoration through God’s merciful rescue, first (a) anticipated in the promises and previews in the Old Testament and then (b) accomplished by Jesus (in his obedient life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection), now (c) applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit, and finally (d) to be consummated, when he returns, in the new heavens and earth. The biblical way to say “the relationship of God and humankind” is “covenant.” To “get the lay of the land” that shows how all roads (even faint footpaths) lead to Scripture’s “metropolis,”—to “follow the current” of each biblical stream—we need to see the Bible as the book of the covenant, the book of the bond between our Creator-Lord and us, his creature-servants.

When I teach this point in churches that may not be as attuned to “covenant” as, I expect, we are here, I asked folks to open their Bibles to the page just before Genesis 1, and then to the page just before Matthew 1. On those two pages I expect they will find the words “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” Those terms are so familiar that we may ignore their significance, filtering them out like “white noise.” But we should notice what the terms “Old” and “New Testament” signal about the structure and content of the Scripture.

“Old” and “New” draw a distinction in time, between what came earlier and what has come later. They signal that the Bible’s “lay of the land” is historical. The Bible is the self-disclosure of the God who does things in history, who does not “keep his place” as an aloof, safe, super-spiritual abstraction that we can admire or discuss from afar (as the Deists of the 18th century thought he should). This is a God who “meddles” in the affairs of individuals and nations, who creates and calls and judges and rescues. The God who speaks in the Bible has an agenda, and he is on the move to direct history toward his good goal for his creation.

Secondly, consider the word “Testament.” In our day “testament” appears in the term “last will and testament,” the document by which an individual directs how his or her property is to be distributed when he or she has died. As a term designating the two subdivisions of the Bible, testament does designate a legal document, in which one individual unilaterally issues directives that affect others. It comes into our English versions “testament” from the Latin word testamentum, which in turn represented the New Testament’s Greek word diathēkē. The New Testament authors used diathēkē in passages that referred to the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31—Jesus’ words instituting the Lord’s Supper, Paul’s discussion of old and new covenant ministry in 2 Corinthians 3, and Hebrews 7-10—because Jewish scholars of the Dispersion who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (Septuagint) had used diathēkē in place of the Hebrew word berith—which we now see rendered “covenant” in our English versions. The secular sense of the Greek diathēkē (and Latin testamentum) as “last will and testament” lacked one crucial component of the Hebrew berith: a covenant is a solemn, legal commitment between living persons—husband and wife, a dominant king and a weaker king, and of course the Lord and Israel. The berith, covenant, obligated both parties to keep their respective “ends of the bargain.” But the Lord set the terms through his promises and commands, and he announced the consequences for “breach of contract.” His servants’ role was simply to say, “Amen!” to God’s promises, and “Yes, Sir!” to God’s demands…and, from that point on, to trust and obey.

So we should understand “Old Testament/New Testament” as “Old Covenant/New Covenant,” and see these terms as reflecting God’s promise in Jeremiah 31 to establish a new, unbreakable covenant, not like the covenant of Sinai that Israel had violated (Jer. 31:31-34; see Heb. 8:6-10). That covenant promise encapsulated the historical structure of the Bible: God’s promise and its fulfillment in Jesus distinguished the two major epochs of God’s speaking to humanity: (a) the Old Covenant, beginning with the books of Moses, read in synagogues each Sabbath (2 Cor. 3:14-15; see Acts 15:21); and (b) the New Covenant, established by the sacrificial blood of Christ and announced in the apostolic gospel (Matt. 26:28; Luke 22:21; 2 Cor. 3:6).


Next Wednesday's post will break down the components of biblical covenants.